Not all Cabs Created Equally. Bordeaux Vs. California, again!

By American Wine Appassionata November 11, 2016

Not all Cabs Created Equally. Bordeaux Vs. California, again!

“Fresh, Bold & Youthful” Vs. “Mature, Graceful & Old”

25 years ago, did anyone really know how these big opulent Napa Valley “Fruit Bomb” Cabernet Sauvignons will age? The world had never seen wines quite like them (Ripe, Fruity, Aromatic, Low Acidity, Rich in Tannin Quality and High alcohol levels).

 Granted, Wine critics who played a major role in the evolution of the wine industry, were quick saying that a wine would be better fifteen or twenty years down the road without any supporting evidence. The average wine drinker has a misconception about aging wine. There are only one to two percent of the worlds wines that ever require aging to begin with (even the term “require” varies from one wine to the another), but most people think that all wines will improve if aged. Let’s understand the concept of wine aging first before judging Napa cabs.

What's Wine Aging? We have all heard about aging wine, it is a long process that takes place over years and there are so many elements that play a roll of some significance to achieve the ultimate plateau of wine maturity.

Just as Oxygen yellows newspapers and browns sliced apples, it spoils wine, but the process is more complex. There is also a beneficial oxidation that helps wine mature. Paradoxically, wine is improving even as it is being destroyed; time will kill a wine, but is also necessary to make it great. This dual process is visible after a bottle has been opened. Aeration of wine - whether by decanting a bottle, swirling one’s glass or sloshing a mouthful around - is a form of controlled oxidation. The aim is to improve the wine by helping it open up after it’s long confinement in bottle.  Leave an uncorked bottle or glass out too long, exposed to air, and it will be ruined.

The trick that the greatest old bottles of wine pull off is keeping them long enough to blossom. The tiny amount of air in a bottle of wine, the porous cork that allows a slow exchange of oxygen over decades, the coolness of a cellar that decelerates chemical reactions in the wine, the humidity of a cellar and horizontal storage that ensure a cork stays moist and maintains a seal - all these practices are aimed at fostering beneficial changes while deterring destructive ones. A wine is considered mature when it has maximized its flavor possibilities but has not yet begun to deteriorate. There are certain truisms about how wine ages. Big bottles are believed to age more slowly than small ones, because the ratio of oxygen to liquid is lower. Wine in cooler cellars ages slower than wine in warmer ones. More tannic wines take longer to come around than more supple ones. High alcohol, high sugar, and high acid wines - fortified wines such as Port and Sherry, sweet wines like Sauternes and Tokay, the deliberately heated Madeira, acidic wines including certain Rieslings - all live longer than table wines because their strength inhibits the development of bacteria. The genius of Madeira, a sea turtle of a wine with an almost infinite lifespan where oxidation is the goal. With still wines, you cannot stop the undesirable process of oxidation, you can only delay it. Therefore, the young bottles of wine with the greatest chance of achieving an exalted state are those with both preservatives (tannins) and potential phenols. Because the tannins serve as an antioxidant, once they start clumping together and falling out of the wine, this line of defense against further oxidation begins to give way. At this point a wine’s fruity character begins to disappear, and the wine is said to “lose its fruit.” Eventually, a wine becomes so leached of its original vitality that is called faded at best, but more likely “maderized” or something worse.

Most wine drinkers believe that Bordeaux was aged solely to let the tannins soften. While this is a factor, it is not the only one. The changes in style, bouquet and flavor that accompany long term aging of Bordeaux (as well as Barolo or Rioja) are fundamental and profound. The current style of “Fruit Bomb” winemaking, which is dominant in Napa, is incapable of developing nuances and complexities is flawed.

Many old-world wine drinkers are very critical of most “Fruit Bomb” style Napa cabs. Their biggest claim is, these cabs are neither long term ageable nor capable of developing complex nuances even if aged for 10-15 years. In my opinion, If a Cab cannot age long enough to develop complex nuances, it is due to inferior quality of the grapes used. In this case, no matter how talented the winemaker is or the advanced winemaking methods used to achieve what constitutes truly great Cabernet Sauvignon wines will change the fact they started with poor quality fruit.

Robert Parker Jr. of The Wine Advocate praised big Napa cabs over the past twenty-five years.  Several Napa wineries and wine maker have enjoyed the prestige of receiving 100 pt. score of their creations.

Parker was not the only one scoring big Napa cabs at 100 pt.  Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiasts followed pursuit. 100 pt. score from any of the above magazines was an occurrence that single handedly created a frenzy among consumers to seek such wine. These wines all had one thing in common. They were, big, bold, aromatic with fruit forward nuances. If you were a Napa Vintner, why shouldn’t you make such Cabernet?

Most Napa Vintners have chosen to make “Fruit Bomb” style wine over the last two decades.  It is their own conscious business decision that wine critics and most American wine drinkers crave. It is an economically sound decision if you are running a profitable business.

The wonder of grapes like Cabernet is not found only in the depth and range they exhibit as young wines, but also in the majesty they develop over time. The obvious truth that the deep and complex flavors of young Cabernet are, in and of themselves, wondrous to behold. Those great young Cabs, with their managed tannins make very fine accompaniments to many fancy foods.

To suggest that a young Cabernet can have no nuance is far from the truth.  There is one other aspect of the “age-worthy debate” that deserves exploration. Young Cabernets with depth, richness and range are not disasters and do make some of the best reds we can drink young with certain foods. That makes them successful, but in a different model.

Having tasted 20-30-year-old wines from Caymus Special Select, Seavey Vineyard, Martha’s Vineyard and Chateau Montelena, I do believe that Napa Vintners are capable of making Cabernet Sauvignon that can evolve and age Gracefully.

There is a wine style fo everyone, even French wine professionals, in blind wine tasting rated California wines higher than French. As I remind you of The Historic 1976 Paris vs. France Wine Tasting, By the count of French judges, California wines overwelmingly won the competition and came on top.

Read more about The Paris Tasting, here >

Over the past two decades we have learned through consumption about Napa’s big cab.  We now know that most Napa cabs tend to close up in the first five years, then between year 5-7 they will become approachable, fruit forward, fresh with somewhat enjoyable levels of evolved and softened tannins. Between 7-12 years they almost go into hibernation, nothing happens, they might be even less approachable. Then most of them hit a maturity plateau between 13-25 years but with a small sacrifice of the fruity aromas but with silky smooth tannins.

California ‘s wine making model is completely different than the old-world model. No doubt that most American consumers who drink Cabernet, enjoy drinking young, fruity, complex and big in style which also pairs well with most food types that we consume.


The Wine Appassionata

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